Chapter 1: The Big Picture
The pioneers did not intend simply to experiment with new forms of journalism or give-and-take between citizens and journalists. Most site operators believe they are engaged in a new kind of community building, a kind of antidote to the “bowling alone” phenomenon.
If 2004 was the year of the blog, 2005 and 2006 were the years the hyperlocal citizen media movement exploded.
It’s been only three years since the first U.S. news organizations embarked on this experiment. In communities as divergent as Bakersfield, California (Merle Haggard country), and Westport, Connecticut (Paul Newman country), tech-savvy individuals at major media companies, and journalism mavericks operating outside of corporate media, created some of the earliest models for intensely local “place sites” that would invite citizens to co-author online chronicles of life in their towns - particularly the things that happened beyond the notice of the press.
These early sites solicited whatever users would contribute in the way of neighborhood news, calendar announcements, eyewitness accounts and audio and video of breaking events and public meetings, musings, testimonials, discussion threads and especially photos. Many citizens were prose-shy but would post images, site operators quickly observed. Some pioneers, such as former CBS newsman Gordon Joseloff of WestportNow.com, grafted citizen contributions and comments onto a spine of original reporting. Others, such as NorthwestVoice.com in Bakersfield, assigned community editors to create closely focused neighborhood content to blend with citizen voices.
Bloggers and independent operators with no legacy media attachments also began creating hundreds of local hubs built almost entirely on volunteer user-generated content. In Vermont, ibrattleboro.com, the side project of two web designers who focus solely on their community, embraced this model. So did Backfence.com, a start-up company that attracted $3 million from investors to try to roll out templated sites from coast to coast.
The pioneers did not intend simply to experiment with new forms of journalism or give-and-take between citizens and journalists. Most site operators believe they are engaged in a new kind of community building, a kind of antidote to the “bowling alone” phenomenon. The sites that really cook, such as Morris Publishing’s BlufftonToday.com, combine a style of in-town social networking among neighbors who might cross paths if they had the time, with news and information sharing among posters who are informed, passionate, curious, or simply paying attention.
Many sites have grown out of towns such as Deerfield, New Hampshire, where citizens get little or no attention from any press organization short of one of their number being murdered. They’re also rising from cities, including many aging Midwestern manufacturing areas such as Toledo, Ohio, and Muncie, Indiana, where activists complain that local coverage is diminishing as news organizations cut costs.
Sites in several places, including San Diego, New Haven, Connecticut, and Olympia, Washington, were born of founders’ efforts to prod local media to compete. Now, they say, papers are responding by competing more vigorously on stories they might otherwise have missed or underplayed and by reporting real-time news on their web sites.
NEXT: About the Study